War has come to Cornwall many times over the centuries.
From the earliest times when the Cornish chieftain, Centwine was driving the Britons from Cornwall, to the attacks on Cornwall's coastline during the Anglo-Spanish war, when many of its coastal villages were sacked and burned by the Spanish invaders, to Cornwall's involvement in the English Civil War, the Napoleonic Wars of the 18th century and the World Wars of the 20th century, Cornwall and its people and their allies have pulled together, both military and civilian, to repel and protect itself from aggressors.
Cornwall allied with the Danes against the Saxons until in 814 the Saxon King Egbert conquered Cornwall.
The 16th Century and Henry VIII's Fort Building
During the 16th century an extensive building programme of forts was undertaken.
Pendennis Castle was built as one of a chain of Device forts running along the coast of the southern half of Britain. It was built between 1539 - 1545 for King Henry VIII on the west side of the River Fal, near Falmouth. It guarded the estuary of the River Fal, the Carrick Roads, particularly against the perceived threat of Spanish and French invasion.
St Mawes Castle, built between 1540 and 1545, stands opposite Pendennis on the east bank of the River Fal.
St Mawes Castle, St Mawes
St Catherine's Castle
Another of Henry VIII's Device Forts was built on the estuary of the River Fowey. St Catherine's Castle was built between 1538 and 1540.
In 1595 during the Anglo-Spanish war of 1585-1604 the Battle of Cornwall took place. A Spanish naval squadron attacked Penzance, Mousehole, Paul and Newlyn causing extensive damage.
Pendennis Castle also featured prominently in the English Civil War. It was the last Royalist stronghold in the West, withstanding a five month siege between March 1646 and August 17th 1646.
It was manned by Royalist forces during 1642–6, the first part of the English Civil War
St Mawes Castle was also occupied by Royalist forces during the English Civil War.
At the end of the 18th Century existing coastal fortifications were rearmed due to the threat of a French invasion. New defences were also built such as the redoubts at Maker Heights to overlook Plymouth Sound and a coastal battery on St Anthony Head to protect Falmouth.
In the Napoleonic Wars (1803 - 1815) many of Cornwall's existing fortifications were brought back into service including Pendennis Castle, while many more were built, particularly along the coast of south-east Cornwall.
In the latter part of the nineteenth century, there was again the threat of hostilities with France which prompted the construction of a number of new forts in south east Cornwall to protect Plymouth naval base. These included Tregantle, Scraesdon, Polhawn, Cawsand and Picklecombe. Known as Palmerston Forts, they were named after the Foreign Secretary of the period.
During the late 19th century, Cornwall's own regiment - The Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry was established. The regiment fought in the Boer Wars, First and Second World Wars as well as seeing service in a number of countries including India, Palestine, Ireland, Somaliland, Iraq and Greece. In 1959 it was amalgamated with the Somerset Light Infantry to form the Somerset and Cornwall Light Infantry. There is a museum dedicated to them at Bodmin, which was established in 1925, housed in their original barracks.
During the First World War (WWI)
The Great War of 1914-1918 brought further re-arming of coastal defences.
By 1916, German U-boats were sinking many merchant vessels and Royal Navy warships in the English Channel. It was decided to use airships to combat them and a major airship station, RNAS Mullion, was constructed on the Bonython Estate on the Lizard.
Spread over 320 acres the complex contained everything from accommodation blocks, two airship hangars and gas storage tanks.
The C9 airship known as "the darling of the Airship Service" was based at Mullion. In her period of service from June 1916 to September 1918 she flew 3,270 hours, had one confirmed kill on a U-boat and three probable kills, covered more than 68,000 miles and is reported to have never missed a patrol in her 805 days of service.
For the remainder of the war, RNAS Mullion was central to anti-submarine operations off the Cornish coast and in the South-Western Approaches.
Most of the airship station is now overgrown, but the hangar floors remain, along with huge concrete blocks that once supported windbreaks and hangar doors.
Other parts of Cornwall were involved in the First World War.
in 1915 soldiers were quartered at Portwrinkle for training before being shipped to france to fight in the trenches.
In 1914, Penzance Harbour resumed the role it had played in the Napoleonic period and a naval base was established. In 1915, merchant ships were torpedoed by German Submarines. Large numbers of crew were landed at Penzance, including 95 on one day and 135 on another. And in 1919, after the end of the war, a surrendered German Submarine was taken to Penzance and opened for public inspection.
Penzance Cemetery contains 34 scattered burials of the First World War. In addition the cemetery also contains 2 Foreign National burials of the 1914-18 war, including 1 unidentified French Merchant seaman
Falmouth became a drifter base in January 1915 and in 1918, a centre for ship repairs. Falmouth Cemetery contains 86 First World War burials, including those of two unidentified firemen from the S.S. "Clan Cumming", attacked by German submarine in the English Channel on 5 November 1917, with the loss of 13 lives. During “World War I” the docks were temporarily taken over by the admiralty. Apparently Falmouth lost only six ships of the 58 convoys that sailed from the port into enemy action.
Whole communities were destroyed by the First World War. At the end of the 19th Century, the hamlet of Hille in Cornwall was a thriving farming community. A new chapel and schoolroom were built, along with a cottage for the schoolmistress. But within 20 years, Hille and all its homes had been abandoned. Not one of its men returned from the First World War.
The famous poem by Laurence Binyon, 'For the Fallen' was composed in 1914 in Cornwall between The Rumps and Pentire Point. The poem was first published by the Times newspaper in September of 1914, at the beginning of the First World War. It is widely quoted today at Remembrance Services. A stone plaque quoting the fourth stanza of the poem stands at the location where he was inspired to write the words:
“They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.”
The Second World War (WWII/WW2)
Cornwall played a major role in World War II not only with fighters who flew from the many RAF bases in Cornwall providing escorts for heavy bombers on their raids over France but also in the important D-Day Normandy landings.
Cornwall was at risk from the air and the sea. During 1940 and 1941 thousands of bombs fell on Cornwall and there were even airborne landings of enemy troops.
Anticipating an enemy attack from the sea, ports had to be heavily defended and beaches were protected by minefields, barbed wire, pillboxes and gun emplacements.
Cornwall, with its huge stretch of coastline and numerous beaches suitable for amphibious landings by enemy tanks and troops, became a fortress with lines of pillboxes. Exits from the beaches were blocked by anti-tank obstacles and defended road blocks, with defences from the most at risk beaches, extending five miles inland to create highly defended areas.
Ports and harbours, such as Falmouth and Fowey were defended from the sea by emergency coastal batteries. St Catherines Castle, originally constructed for Henry VIII, became an observation post during the Second World War with a gun battery with two guns, added in June 1940. A further gun was added by 1942. Most of the concrete defences have now been removed.
To protect against attack from the air, anti-aircraft guns were stationed around major strategic targets such as Falmouth docks and Fowey and clever decoy sites were created in open countryside which, at night, resembled airfields and towns to try and fool the German bombers.
Military airfields were constructed across Cornwall.
Planes based at Cornwall’s airfields were part of the RAF’s Coastal Command. In the summer of 1940 when there was a very real possibility of the UK being invaded, they carried out patrols of the coast every day looking for any signs of enemy landings.
During 1940 and 1941 when the German bombing campaign was at its height, aircraft from Cornwall's airfields defended against the enemy raiders, protecting convoys of merchant shipping from German aircraft and engaging with German U-boats.
The invasion never happened so after 1941 British forces launched an offensive, attacking the occupied French ports and German ships from airfields in Cornwall. With the amount of troops, planes and equipment needing to be transported during late 1942, in the build up to the Allied invasion of North Africa, the airfields were expanded.
Initially, RAF Portreath was the main airfield in Cornwall involved with the ferrying and dispatching of this traffic but as the volume increased with the number of operations being mounted, the airfield became unable to cope and so other Cornish airfields were drafted in to deal with the workload.
Runways had to be extended to cope with the large numbers of heavy aircraft using them.
Cornwall's Second World War airfields included:
RAF Cleave - operational from 1939 until 1945. It was located 4.2 miles (6.8 km) north of Bude. Little of it remains.
RAF Davidstow Moor - operational from late 1942 until 1945. It was located near Camelford. The runways remain and are today used by the Davidstow Flying Club.
RAF Perranporth - operational from 1941 until 1945. It was built as an RAF Supermarine Spitfire station. Located on Cligga cliffs, near Perranporth on the north coast of Cornwall. It has now been converted to civilian use and is the home of the Perranporth Flying Club.
RAF Portreath - the base was built during 1940 and became operational in March 1941. Today the airfield is still owned and used by the RAF. It is not open to the public.
RAF St Eval - Built in 1938. Opened on 2 October 1939. In June 1940 it became a Fighter Command sector headquarters during the Battle of Britain and Supermarine Spitfires were posted there. These were joined by Hawker Hurricane and Bristol Blenheim fighters. The station's aircraft took an active part in the conflict. Located on the north coast of Cornwall between Newquay and Padstow. Much of the basic structure can still be seen but many of the buildings have gone. The airfield is currently a communication station.
RAF Trebelzue - Opened as a civilian airfield in 1933, this small airfield was requisitioned at the outbreak of World War II and named RAF Trebelzue. Initially it was a satellite of RAF St Eval. In February 1943 it was expanded with two concrete runways and its name was changed to RAF St Mawgan. St Mawgan was used for the dispatch of aircraft to Africa. In June 1943, the United States Army Air Forces took over, carrying out a number of major improvements, including a new control tower and a further extension of the main runway. During late 1943 it became one of the busiest airfields in Britain. Located on the north coast of Cornwall near the village of St Mawgan between Newquay and Padstow. Today it is the site of Cornwall's airport.
RAF Predannack - Opened in May 1941 as a satellite for RAF Portreath. The first squadron to arrive was 247 Squadron with Hawker Hurricanes, specialising in night defence of the South West's towns and ports. Located on the west side of the Lizard peninsula. Today, the runways are operated by the Royal Navy and used as a satellite airfield and relief landing ground for nearby RNAS Culdrose
RNAS St Merryn (HMS Curlew HMS Vulture) - Initially built for civil purposes, it was rebuilt in1940 as a Fleet Air Arm Station and developed into a training base for airborne observers and aircraft carrier fighters. The layout of an RNAS airfield differs from that of an RAF base. There are four short runways all facing opposite directions. This is to replicate take-off from an aircraft carrier because carriers were always pointed into the wind for aircraft take-off; the airfield is designed to allow take-offs whatever the wind direction. Located near Padstow. Today the airfield is disused but the Control Tower, Hangars, accommodation blocks and cinema are still standing and the Commanding Officer's quarters is now a farmhouse.
A satellite of RNAS St Merryn was HMS Vulture II an air-to-ground, air-to-sea bombing and gunnery range at Treligga, 2 km west of Delabole in north Cornwall. Ground targets were placed on the cliff edge On the cliffs above these was the main part of the range. During 1944 this area was laid out to represent a typical Japanese-held area, with dummy tanks, a bridge, a road convoy and a landing strip.
Other areas of Cornwall played a part in training. In 1943, No. 4 British Commando were involved in a mock seaborne raid codenamed "Exercise Brandyball", which took place at the 'Brandys' on 300-foot (90 m) cliffs, near Bosigran on the Land's End peninsula.
D-Day and the Normandy Landings
During the spring of 1944, in the build up up to D-Day, the first day of the invasion, accommodation was needed for the mass of American troops taking part in the landings. This programme of accommodation – known as ‘Bolero’ – created thousands of temporary camps throughout England’s southern counties.
Troops were housed in bell tents forming temporary camps. Truro, Wheal Busy and Chacewater were just some of the locations in Cornwall where these camps lined the roads. The Wheal Busy camps housed troops from the United States 29th Division who were headed for the beaches of Omaha and Utah in Normandy.
Operation Overlord began on 6 June 1944 – D-Day. One of the major reasons for the success of the D-Day landings was the enormous amount of forces involved. The landing troops set off from embarkation points all along Britain’s southern coasts, from Harwich to Milford Haven, gathering at a point near the the Isle of Wight before heading for the beaches of Normandy. The wide range of embarkation points gave no prior clue as to where the landings might take place.
On June 6th a total of 130,000 men and huge quantities of tanks, vehicles, artillery, supplies and equipment were shipped to the Normandy beaches. Many more followed in the weeks afterwards. In the three weeks after D-Day there was an intense transportation of troops, equipment and supplies from the embarkation hards to the Normandy coast. In total 11,000 tons of supplies were dispatched every day from the hards to the beachheads.
Many thousands of troops, tanks and equipment were shipped from specially constructed embarkation points in Cornwall to the beaches of Normandy as part of the Allied invasion of mainland Europe.
In Cornwall, embarkation points for the D-Day Normandy landings were sited in and around Falmouth at locations such as Turnaware Point and Tolverne; at Trebah in the Helford estuary and Barn Pool, Mount Edgcumbe, near Plymouth. During June 1944 thousands of American troops, armour, equipment and supplies were ferried from these locations to the battlefields of northern France.
The embarkation points were generally inconspicuous features, consisting of a concrete apron, known as a ‘hard’, which sloped down towards the water. Hards were constructed in two parts; in solid concrete above the high water mark, and in flexible concrete matting (concrete slabs hinged with steel hooks) to the lowest limit of the tide. Beyond the hard lay a series of steel-framed moorings known as dolphins.
World War II Radar Stations in Cornwall
Cornwall was home to a number of radar stations. In the spring of 1940 the network of Home Chain was extended into Cornwall from the original Home Chain on the east coast. Seven Chain Home and Chain Home Low stations were operating in Cornwall by April 1941. Chain Home Low stations were designed to detect low-flying aircraft. The information would be passed from these radar stations to operations rooms which would then direct fighter planes to intercept the enemy aircraft. Further developments in radar led to a new wave of coastal radar stations, known as Chain Home Extra Low, which were capable of detecting both shipping and low-flying aircraft. There were six of these stations in Cornwall by July 1942.
RAF Hawks Tor; RAF Carnaton, now part of St Mawgan airfield; RAF Dunderhole between Trebarwith and Tintagel; Trevose Head Radar Station ; Bear Downs - Situated on the Downs above RAF St Eval; Trevithick Downs; Trebarber; Trerew - On the hills overlooking the Gannel estuary; Penhallow; St Agnes Beacon - Set on the northern end of St Agnes Beacon; Kerley Downs; Chapel Carn Brea; Trenhayle; Trewavas Head; Skewjack, Land's End - It was the site of RAF Sennen; Marks Castle, Trevescan Cliff, Land's End; Pen Olver, Lizard; Trelanvean, Lizard - RAF Trelanvean, near St Keverne; Treleaver, Liz; Dry Tree, Lizard - RAF Drytree; Treleggan Farm, Constantine; Jacka Point, Portloe; Downderry; Rame Head - RAF Rame Head.
Several of Cornwall's towns suffered considerable damage during WWII. Penzance was badly damaged. 867 bombs were dropped on Penzance and the surrounding area.
Falmouth played a very important role as Pendennis Castle was used as the Command Centre for Cornwall. It co-ordinated the protection of the Cornish coast, the port of Falmouth and the western approaches to Britain.
An anti-submarine net was laid from Pendennis to St Mawes, to prevent enemies entering the harbour.
Truro was bombed including the Royal Cornwall Infirmary.
There are many remains of Cornwall's Second World War defences including several pillboxes around the coast.
Pillbox on Finnygook Beach, Portwrinkle
There are memorials throughout Cornwall to those who lost their lives during the First and Second World Wars. Many towns and villages have monuments to commemorate specific events during these conflicts and to honour individual squadrons and personnel.
This page is being added in 2014 to commemorate the 70th Anniversary of D-Day and the Centenary of the First World War and for all those who have been affected by war, including the individuals, families and communities involved in wars still being fought today.
Royal British Legion provides care and support to serving members of the Armed Forces, veterans and their families.
Help for Heroes provides practical, direct support to those Servicemen and women who suffer life changing injuries in current conflicts.
War Memorials Online
Commonwealth War Graves Commission
Normandy Veterans Association Friends
Map of War in Cornwall locations
Use the + scale on the left of the map to zoom in on an area. Click on a marker to see the name of the location and click the box to go to the information about that place. To zoom out click - on the scale.
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War in Cornwall locations in Cornwall
War in Cornish
War in Cornwall
Things to do
Maps of Cornwall :
The Ordnance Survey publishes the Explorer series of maps which are
ideal for walkers.
Those covering Cornwall:
Map of Isles of Scilly:101 Isles of Scilly
For more information: www.ordnancesurvey.co.uk
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